Scenic roads bill ready for debut

June 05, 1994|By Erik Nelson | Erik Nelson,Sun Staff Writer

The vistas seen during a "drive in the country" would have some legal protection under legislation set to be introduced tomorrow in the County Council.

The Scenic Roads Act, proposed by County Executive Charles I. Ecker, would designate 60 county roads for protection by changing regulations for new subdivisions and county public works projects.

The legislation would help release developers from some of the requirements they now face, such as widening and straightening roads that front their subdivisions, to preserve the roads' scenic qualities, said Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of planning and zoning.

Under the proposal, county planners would require that subdivisions be planned in a way to avoid damaging the view from scenic roads.

"I'm delighted it's here," said James H. Eacker, president of the Howard County Conservancy and a member of a committee that advised the county executive on growth-control measures.

Mr. Eacker has criticized the administration for not producing the legislation sooner than four years after it was recommended in the 1990 General Plan, the county's 20-year blueprint for growth.

"Howard County has some really lovely roads you enjoy riding on" because of their historic or rural qualities, Mr. Eacker said. "We need to get the legislation in place before those scenic qualities are all destroyed."

Farmers who must negotiate oversize vehicles around narrow, winding roads in western Howard are not quite as anxious to see them designated scenic, said Martha Clark, president of the county Farm Bureau.

"I'm concerned that, in the proposed legislation, it does limit some of the upgrades or maintenance on some of the roads," she said.

In some places, where sharp curves and overgrowth make it difficult to see approaching vehicles, improvements and maintenance are needed to prevent cars from colliding with farm equipment.

Ms. Clark said that her son was driving a corn planter on Triadelphia Road recently when a car ran the planter off the road and into a utility pole. Such accidents could be prevented with wider, more straight roads that are maintained regularly, she said.

Ms. Clark added that she also had a philosophical concern about the legislation.

By enacting such legislation, officials could give some people the impression that "if somebody likes the look of something, it gives them an absolute right to have it."

County farmers have for years been fighting the attitude taken by some growth-control advocates that picturesque farmland needs to be kept that way through government control. Such controls can reduce the value of the land, which farmers see as their main source of retirement income.

"Does that give me the right to ride through Columbia and say, 'I don't like this house or that house -- don't build any more of those?' " Ms. Clark said.

But Ms. McLaughlin said the legislation would not sacrifice safety in the name of beauty.

Proposed wording for the act says scenic roads "may be altered to make necessary safety, access, drainage, capacity or other improvements or to install water or sewage systems while keeping as much of the scenic character as possible."

"If there's a bend in the road that's causing accidents, you have to fix that," Ms. McLaughlin said. That could mean straightening the roadway, or simply clearing overgrowth that blocks motorists' views, she said.

County Councilman Charles C. Feaga, who served on the commission that studied the scenic roads idea, said he thought the legislation, as currently proposed, deals with farmers' concerns.

"As it is now, the bill does not appear to be that impossible to implement," Mr. Feaga said.

"What the public tends to forget when they talk about a beautiful view is that they're looking at the fields, not at the road," he said. "As long as they're talking about the road itself, then I think scenic roads have a place in Howard County."

Shirley Geis, president of the Trotter Road Citizens Association, lives along one of the roads recommended for the scenic designation but said she was unimpressed by the legislation.

Trotter Road would only be designated scenic from Route 108 to Summer Sunrise Drive, the entrance to one of Columbia's newest neighborhoods, and misses one of the most scenic parts of the road to the south, she said. With the legislation having taken so long to emerge, many scenic roads have developed to the point where they may no longer qualify to be scenic.

"I think it's too little, too late," she said. "I think if they had taken action when it was first proposed 10 or 12 years ago, they could have protected some of these areas."

In the case of Trotter Road, the Columbia neighborhood of Pheasant Ridge and a new western high school have cropped up, possibly spoiling the road's chance of gaining County Council approval, she said.

"You get up toward the middle of it and you're looking at the backside of Columbia, and that's not very scenic, is it?" she said.

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